We Chat With: Doug Quint of Big Gay Ice Cream
"The whole thing has been a weird adventure unfolding before me."
Doug Quint is just fun. New Yorkers have known this since the beginning, when the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was getting press coverage even before it rolled out onto the streets in 2009. Since then Quint and partner Bryan Petroff have kept their signature style—soft serve ice cream piled with inventive toppings and served with a smile—true and consistent as their business expanded to an East Village storefront and a national presence.
When you first started with the truck, what were you trying to do? The entire idea is that we would do something a little bit weird. We had this idea of the Good Humor man in the 1960s who would come around to the little league diamond and know all the kids and what they wanted, and families would be happy to take their kids there. The ice cream truck was a happy experience—in New York it's usually pretty surly. So I wanted to do really great customer service. And then Bryan thought that vanilla ice cream is so great to dress up, and no one has updated this damn ice cream truck menu in 40 years! So as we were ready to launch this thing the whole idea seemed rather gay! It was supposed to be really, really happy. We thought it would last a week.
How soon did you realize you had a good thing going? That first summer made us a success. All these people on Twitter thought it was just fun to come out to the truck. They got a kick out of the toppings, they got a kick outta me being nice to them, and we started to feel like the city wanted Big Gay Ice Cream Truck to exist.
At what point did you start realizing that you needed to expand beyond the truck? Eventually the truck became too limiting. The first summer we could really play and experiment, but as we became popular that was ruled out (which is good). In the truck there's two inches of counter space, no cook top, no time to make milkshakes any more, and nowhere to pee! I learned to go nine hours without going wee.
What experiments just went wrong? Bacon. We love bacon and chocolate. But bacon makes a lousy topping. If you take a scoop of chocolate ice cream with bacon the ice cream all melts down your throat but you're left with this wet glob of bacon—it's disgusting. It was gag-worthy.
You've got the classic soft serve technique nailed down—ever wanted to branch out to another style? We really are committed to soft serve. I love learning about other ice cream, and we make batches at home all the time, but soft serve is sort of a maligned food. So it's been interesting to learn how the structures and fat content all affect the ice cream. I feel sorta mad scientists about it.
At the end of the day, is there a flavor that hearkens back to your childhood or calls to you personally? Vanilla with chocolate sprinkles. My sister worked at the Tasty Freeze in our town and that's when I first got obsessed with soft serve. She would make them 18 inches tall for me. At the end of the day, I either don't want ice cream at all or I want a vanilla cone with chocolate sprinkles.
You guys have expanded further than your storefront at events and on television. Is there something you didn't expect in this business that you particularly enjoy? There's not much that we don't enjoy, really. There's not a lot to bitch about. We work really hard, but it all pays off. Part of what we do that I love is that it's sorta street theatre: I'm safe in my little cage, it's my little stage, and I get to entertain people all day long. And it's fun to do it on TV sometimes. I'm still baffled by it but lately I feel as though the media wants us to be successful too.
In three summers, a business you started for fun is now a national brand. Anything give you butterflies-in-the-stomach about that? I don't really see things that way. The whole thing has been a weird adventure unfolding before me. There's going to be another store and a book—there's always going to be a next thing. But I'm not scared of any of it. We just keep doing stuff that we're ready for.
It's your hot season right now. How's it going? It's insane right now. Now that we have a store, locals have realized that can come back to the truck again since the store is taking the brunt of the business. So it's a challenge to keep the store running at that capacity, because our business is built on the appearance that every thing is easy and fun. And everything is fun but nothing is easy.
Looking back, any thankful thoughts on your success? We have 19 people on our payroll; how is this possible? It makes me a little sad for this city that they're fighting food trucks, because the truck was a great incubator for us to figure out that we wanted to do this and to learn a little bit about business. And this truck has now transcended into a national brand with an army of employees paying city taxes!
Plus I love this park. It's such a freak show. I get junkies at the truck all the time.
Do the junkies have any particular favorites? Long-term heroin use makes you hypoglycemic, actually, so they all want really sweet stuff like butterscotch or cherry dip. If someone is walking a dog and shaking, they're on a meth bender, and the only reason they'll come out is to walk the dog, and I just suggest a vanilla cone. On 4/20 I tweeted, "Stoner special: half off if your eyes are bloodshot!" It was a joke, you know! People got so pissed off at me. They wrote, "you're giving preferential treatment to drug users" and I was like, "oh, calm down it was a joke". It's fun.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private chef with a thing for making custardy French ice cream all the year through. Alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away @dustybakergal.